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Real immaterial

Review by Ewan Branda and Kati Rubinyi

Over the last two decades, architects have been re-evaluating the alleged failure of the Modern Movement asserted by architectural theorists of the 1970s. But this rehabilitation of modern architecture excludes many of the provocative, excessive, frivolous, and sometimes funny experiments of its later years, dismissed either as evidence of the depravity of a scientistic modernism run amok or as merely awkward and embarrassing efforts outside the boundaries of respectable practice. But today, these are making a comeback. Such projects, exhibitions, and writing as Diller and Scofidio's Blur Building( 1 ) , the currently touring retrospective of the work of Ant Farm, and the recent obituary in Artforum on Billy Klüver of Experiments in Art and Technology suggest that designers and theorists of contemporary space yearn for a particular kind of freedom and earnest playfulness denied them over the last thirty years. Two recent exhibitions, Superstudio: Life Without Objects , a retrospective of the work of the Italian architectural collective, and Yves Klein: Air Architecture , a show of the artist's little known architectural work, offer such vicarious pleasures.

  These exhibitions bracket a period of artistic and architectural experimentation characterized by "systems thinking" that starts with a postwar cybernetic enlightenment and ends twenty years later with a theoretical impasse brought about by dematerialization. By the late 1960s, the characteristics of art influenced by systems ideas were sufficiently clear to allow the critic Jack Burnham to identify if not an emerging movement then a coherent set of practices having common theoretical aims. Drawing parallels between systems ideas and a concern for the immaterial, he described the emergence of "conceptions that can loosely be termed unobjects, these being either environments or artifacts that resist prevailing critical analysis."( 2 ) Burnham sought to identify artistic practices that transcended disciplinary boundaries, such as the work of the artists Les Levine, Hans Haacke, and Allan Kaprow as well as those featured in a 1968 group show called Air Art at the Arts Council, YM/YWHA in Philadelphia.( 3 ) (Among the works presented there, a Robert Morris piece projected steam from existing pipes under city streets through nozzles on a specially made platform.) The protagonists of Burnham's "systems esthetics" are well known artists. But in architecture, the exponents of any like movement--to the extent that one can be discerned--remain, even in historical hindsight, at its margins.

  Correcting this, the curators of Air Architecture and Life Without Objects make important contributions, both through the exhibitions and their catalogs (which are significant monographs in their own right),( 4 ) to an architectural history of the immaterial during the twenty-year period that starts in the late 1950s. At that time, Yves Klein had remarked "space is what is immaterial and especially unlimited and this is precisely what fully and unfailingly explains and justifies the development of architecture towards the immaterial for the past fifty years!"( 5 ) By identifying it with modern architectural space, Klein proposes a reflective theory of immateriality that differs from the radical re-thinking of architectural practice proposed by Superstudio ten years later. Indeed, the titles of the exhibitions themselves suggest two different attitudes to architectural immateriality--the affirmative euphoria of Klein standing in opposition to the sardonic utopianism of Superstudio--and caution us against attempts to arrive at its singular definition.

Air Architecture , at the MAK Center/Schindler House in Los Angeles, is the first exhibit in the U.S. of architectural projects by Yves Klein from 1958 through 1961. Curated by Los Angeles-based architect and teacher François Perrin, the architectural renderings, blueprints, texts and films in the show amount to a pitch for an architecture of the future in which barriers between nature and architecture are dissipated to produce an immaterial Eden where roofs and walls are made of air and fire. In one perspectival view, recumbent naked figures shelter under a roof of jets of air alongside a fountain of plumes of fire. Klein's intention is no less than to finally realize modern architecture's long-standing ambition to become infinite space. In a paradox taking nothing away from the delightfulness of Klein's vision, Air Architecture is in most respects, although not solid, far from immaterial. This point is demonstrated most clearly by a cross-section which shows the Air Architecture   landscape literally as the tip of an iceberg: a thin crust on top of a deep subterranean realm of engineering including transportation, mechanical equipment and computer controls revealed on the surface through a glass floor. The resulting architecture is paradoxically concrete--an immateriality arrived at through intensely material practices and typically maximal means. Earlier, Klein had produced a series of artworks called   Void Rooms , in which empty rooms were painted completely white or blue in order to dissolve any subjective perception of enclosure and to fuse pictorial and the architectural surfaces.( 6 ) His fire and water fountains, like the fountains at the terminal points of Roman aqueducts, hint that behind this frivolous display lies a vast investment of natural resources, mechanical energy, and human ingenuity enlisted in the transformation of elemental phenomena.

The most engaging aspects of the show are two charming short, looped, films that make the architectural drawings, diagrams and scraps of text seem drab by comparison. The films are stand-alone artworks presenting functioning prototypes at full-scale. In one film Klein demonstrates the alleged efficacy of a jet of air in blowing water sideways in support of the concept of the air roof. A close up of his hands holding a tank of compressed air with a nozzle that looks like a blowtorch shows a continuous blast in contact with a stream of water pouring from a faucet. Most of the water is dispersed horizontally as mist, but some drips downward. The second film is documentation of an installation made in 1961 at Mies van der Rohe's Lange house in Krefeld and presents an abstract and highly aestheticized vision of the Fire Fountain. In this film, a hypnotic, ten-foot-high plume of fire fills half the frame as a woman stares mysteriously in the background, with a spooky superimposition of gas flames burning in flower-like patterns.

  At the Williamson Gallery at Art Center, Life Without Objects exhibited drawings, models, and films made by Superstudio, a Florentine group of radical architects who worked together during the politically tumultuous years between the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. This survey, first displayed at the Design Museum in London and brought to Art Center by curator Stephen Nowlin, presents real and rhetorical proposals tackling broad questions about the fundamental role of architecture. Here, Superstudio's dark, distopian vision mitigates their frivolity and hopeful earnestness; the iconic motif of the black on white grid dominates the work at every scale. The exhibition consistently makes one wonder whether the projects are figurative or literal. In countless perspectives, models and photographs, the grid governs the rectilinear forms of everything from furniture to cities, appearing in turns as a cliché signifier for the harshness of modernism and as a liberating infrastructure. Its multivalent quality is evident in two projects from 1972, both showing the grid implemented at the scale of landscape. In the photomontage called The Happy Island , it appears as a metaphysical figure, while in the model MOMA Environment it is an infrastructural motherboard both virtual and real sustaining nothing less than life itself.

As in Air Architecture , the films are the most compelling works on display. Manifestos made through a fusion of hippie experimental theater and television documentary, they show us what a utopia without design might look and sound like. The first film,   Life: Supersurface , from 1973, begins with a confusing whirl of familiar images of 1960s futurism overlaid with a dizzying description of the world as a network of systems. The pace slows down and the film resolves to a sequence showing a verdant landscape with a beautiful, manicured woman and a balding, woolly-haired man sitting under a tree biting into pieces of fruit. After panning across the blue sky, the camera comes to rest on the sun refracted through the lens in a four-pointed starburst pattern, while the narration--a business-like male voice heard over a triumphant electric guitar solo--ends with the phrase "Life will be the only environmental art." The second film, called Ceremony , is set in a scruffy Italian archeological park and begins with a perplexing sequence showing men and women--some presumably the members of Superstudio--emerging one-by-one and partially clothed from a manhole-sized opening on the top of what appears to be an enormous ancient cistern. A female narrator in a soothing monotone recounts the manifesto as an allegory: the hole from which they emerge gives onto a vast, unseen underground house containing all manner of objects. The underground house is to be cast away--along with its contents--in favor of a life on the surface where the Five Fundamental Acts (Life, Education, Ceremony, Love and Death) can be experienced directly. The underground house of architecture and objects is a stand in for history while the surface is the future, bringing to mind the old iceberg metaphor and Yves Klein's cross-section of the subterranean machinery beneath the architecture of air.

  The utopias proposed by Klein and Superstudio are rooted in an architectural   systems aesthetics that mobilized the immaterial as a form of instrumental and political critique. Its origins can be found in the challenge to entrenched modern planning ideals launched by the Team 10( 7 ) architectural group in postwar Britain, a time in which new techniques of military Operations Research and cybernetics were being made public. These had advanced a form of systems thinking that saw complexes of people and machines as information processing systems governable through procedures of decision and control. For Team 10, cities and buildings were no exception. Social change, previously imposed top-down by an avant-garde who assumed an a priori agency of architecture in bringing it about, was now seen as emerging bottom-up from society's own internal processes, which architecture and planning were to steward. The task of the designer was to build the hardware--the amplifiers, attenuators, and gates that regulated the rate and intensity of flow within those systems. At minimum, architecture was to be designed to not get in its way.

But if architecture was to facilitate the flows of human interaction that were already in place then what was to be the role of the designer? The fine line between an architecture congruent with the processes of the newly identified social complex and a rudimentary, schematic architecture serving only the subsistence needs of society was crossed in the 1960s. Architects on the fringes of late modernism such as Yona Friedman( 8 ) in France and Cedric Price in England radicalized the traditional architectural mandate through methods "which would free the client from the 'patronage' of the architect, and at the same time... make the architect useful to the client."( 9 ) A few years later, Price advocated design based on a systematic use of expertise outside the discipline of architecture, dryly remarking that "calculated indolence on the part of the architect can produce great works by others," and advising architects that "only if one is constantly enriching, revising, and reviewing one's appetite, expertise, skills and clout can one with confidence advise [clients] to look elsewhere."( 10 ) This rethinking of the architect's role--for Friedman, that of a facilitator and for Price, a last resort when one has exhausted all banal courses of action--produced a procedural rather than physical form of architectural immateriality.

  What started in the early 1950s as an interest in the regulation of social complexes through the design of organizational structures became by the end of the 1960s a general tendency according primacy to programmatic specification. That is, forms of use and event supplanted architectural form as the subject matter of design. The Pepsi-Cola Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka exposition, designed by the Experiments in Art in Technology collective, took this tendency to its logical extreme. No architect was involved in the project, only artists, musicians and engineers; the resulting building looked like an enormous, faceted igloo with its structure exposed and containing a single domed space. "Live Programmers"--artists and performers such as David Tudor, Ann Halprin, Pauline Oliveros and Allan Kaprow--managed the experience and duration of a user's visit to the pavilion from a control room in real-time through computer-controlled installations. The experience of the space was made up of sound, light, mist and reflections in a mirrored lining inside the dome - architecture reduced (or rather expanded) to environment. Yves Klein's collaborator on the Air Architecture projects was the architect Werner Runhau, a member of the Mobile Architecture Group that included Yona Friedman and the artist Constant. They argued for an architecture that was a form of life support and whose success or failure could be judged not in formal or material terms but rather in terms of the degree to which it aided or impeded the natural flow of everyday human interaction. Like Yves Klein, Superstudio questioned the status of designed objects in the world of these day-to-day interactions. But they did not so much propose a world without them as ask from where the determinants of their forms should be derived. Their answer was through negation, from outside the logic of the commodity, and therefore from outside the procedures of design. Form was arrived at through the undoing of the consequences of the "social practice of capitalism"( 11 ) thereby returning the material world to a state of emptiness. For Superstudio, the liquidation of the designed object produced a crisis implicit in Cedric Price's logic of inaction: if design was to be equated with life then what was left to design? Faced with this impasse, they took refuge in practices outside architecture with a determination to which the later work on display in Life Without Objects clearly testifies. Despite this theoretical stalemate, the conceit that immateriality is the ideal state of the designed object--as different as it appears in the work of Yves Klein and Superstudio--is not just rhetoric but a potent instrumental mode of critique. Yet in their work it remains one with humor, sometimes ironic but never sarcastic, and always with a playfulness that brings to mind the artist Roy Ascott's reflection: "Science seeks to reduce the unpredictable to measurable limits... By comparison, the artist plays, but it is play in 'deep seriousness.'"( 12 )


  1. A media pavilion designed for the Swiss Expo of 2002, the Blur Building appears as a cloud of water vapor floating above a lake. See

  2. Jack Burnham, "Systems Esthetics", Artforum , September 1968.


  4. Air Architecture . Peter Noever and François Perrin, eds.; Superstudio: Life Without Objects . Peter Lang, William Menking, eds. MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, 2004

  5. Yves Klein in conversation, in Air Architecture exhibition catalogue, p. 91. MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, 2004

  6. Mark Wigley, "The Architecture of the Leap", in Air Architecture exhibition catalogue, pp. 114-115. Needs publisher and date of publication MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, 2004

  7. Team X was a collective which included architects Aldo Van Eyck and Peter and Alison Smithson. The group was formed in 1956 in response to old-guard Modernism exemplified by LeCorbusier. Their goals were a polemical, humanistic architecture that incorporated a critique of consumer society.

  8. Friedman was preoccupied with redefining the architects role through experiments with user-driven design within architect-designed infrastructures.

  9. Yona Friedman, Towards a Scientific Architecture , p. xi. MIT Press, 1975.

  10. Cedric Price, Works II , p. 18. Architectural Association, London, 1984.

  11. Henri Lefebvre "From The Production of Space" (1974), in Architecture Theory Since 196 8. K. Michael Hayes, ed., p. 179. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000.

  12. Roy Ascott, "The Construction of Change" (1964), in The New Media Reader. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds., p. 128. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2003.